April 17, 2013

The Westminster Opera Theater Presents Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann”

With the growth of performing opportunities at Westminster Choir College over the past years, one thing which has been missing is a proper hall in which to present non-choral performances. The college now has a solid operatic training program in place, in which vocal students can get roles under their belts before graduation. The Choir College has presented operas at the nearby high school and other venues, but this past weekend, the Westminster Opera Theater poured cast, stage, and a very appreciative audience into the campus’s Playhouse for a presentation of one of the more substantial operas in the repertory. With stage on two sides, a pianist on a third side and conductor at the back of the hall, this was operatic theater in the round, and considering the limitations of the space, the resulting production was nothing short of remarkable.

Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann is a prime example of late 19th century French operettas, combining humor, caricatures, and great melodies into an opera which captivated Paris from the moment of its premiere. Offenbach constructed the three-act (with prologue and epilogue) with major characters who change identity in each act but are sung by the same performer, requiring tremendous vocal stamina from singers of any age, much less in the early twenties.

The bulk of the vocal work falls on the tenor role of Hoffmann (based on the German author and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann) and the Villains (four, sung by the same baritone) and an additional four-part tenor role of the Servants. Westminster Opera Theater double-cast almost all of the roles for performances Friday and Saturday nights (with an additional performance on Sunday cast with the covers to the principals), and Friday night’s cast proved that these singers were well up to the task of high-quality professional opera.

The role of Hoffmann was sung by tenor Rexford Tester, a first-year graduate student. Throughout the opera, Mr. Tester showed remarkable vocal endurance and range of emotion when he rhapsodized about his three loves, both imaginary and vehicles for demonic betrayal. Mr. Tester sang the “Kleinzach” scene with animation and sneering drama, and his love duets with the three separate beloveds were poignant and affecting. Hoffmann was a spent man by the end of the opera, but Mr. Tester never ran out of vocal energy.

The roles of the four Villains are much trickier to sustain through three acts. Although Hoffmann appears in virtually every scene, his character remains relatively consistent. The four Villains, Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle, and Dapertutto, vary their scheming techniques or demonic inspirations to trip up Hoffman and the personalities of the characters differ considerably. Baritone Brian Mextorf, currently pursuing a Master of Music at Westminster, has several significant roles to his credit. Mr. Mextorf changed characters substantially for each role, with a voice that resonated well in the space of the Playhouse. As the dollmaker Coppelius, Mr. Mextorf was somewhat geeky; he was sufficiently oily as Dr. Miracle, “curer” of all ills; and he clearly had something going with the Devil as Dapertutto, stealer of souls and reflections.

Interestingly, Offenbach composed the characters of Hoffmann’s three love interests for three separate sopranos. The three roles require very different vocal abilities and present significantly varied personalities and each of the three sopranos on Friday night brought the appropriate vocal treatment to the roles. The character of Olympia, sung by graduate student Madeline Apple Healey, required solid coloratura singing, but unlike the great 18th century coloratura soprano roles, there was a great deal of physicality involved. Ms. Healey was vivacious in doll-like stature, with crystal clean runs and scales, and high E-flats that were right on pitch. Antonia, Hoffmann’s obsession in Act II, was frail and delicate, but Liesl McPherrin sang with a lovely upper register and good ensemble connection with the other singers. Courtesan Giulietta was a schemer, easily swayed by Dapertutto to capture Hoffmann’s reflection for her own gain, and Marissa Mae Chalker proved to be a saucy and seductive, yet decisive singer. Especially elegant was her Barcarolle duet with the character of Nicklausse, solidly performed by mezzo-soprano Laura Elizabeth Davis.

Supporting characters were no less substantial than the leads. Tenor Lucas Levy, clearly a popular singer on the Westminster campus, found humor and energy in his four characters of the “Servants.” As Nicklausse (and the Muse in the prologue and epilogue), Ms. Davis was often the glue which held the act together, always trying to be the voice of reason to Hoffmann. The twenty-member chorus sounded well-blended in the Playhouse and no doubt enjoyed the numerous costume and character changes. With so many characters in this opera, if one did not particularly care for a voice, it was just a matter of waiting a minute for a completely different voice to appear.

Stage Director David Paul made tremendous use of the limited space of the Playhouse, and although the chorus often had no choice but to make their entrances rather noisy, the production elements throughout the space incorporated the audience into the show. Musical Director William Hobbs packed a lot of music into the three-hour time period, assisted by the exceptional Soyoung Kim providing piano accompaniment. This opera was a major production for any college-level institution, but especially notable for Westminster Choir College, whose singers now have one more tool in their arsenals for future performance employment.